spaceCenter for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA)

CoBaLTT Participants

Strategy 1: Building Background

Building background represents a crucial phase in the preparation of a CBI curriculum unit/lesson. Building background refers to the importance of helping students activate their existing foundational knowledge (their background knowledge or schema ), as well as helping them connect it to their experience of the here and now, in order to prepare them for their content and language learning journey. This strategy is particularly important in CBI as the concepts related to content (be it related to culture, science, social studies, literature, etc.) are often as cognitively challenging as the acquisition of language itself.

Cognitive psychologists have known for some time that individuals learn new information by relating it to what we already know (e.g., Anderson, Spiro & Montague, 1977; Bartlett, 1932; Piaget, 1954; Vygotsky, 1962). Prior knowledge and experience—and the ability to activate that knowledge/experience and relate it to incoming information—are the necessary tools for learning.

The “building background” strategy is related to schema theory (e.g., Anderson, 1977; Spiro, 1977), a theory about knowledge whose basic tenet posits that “written text, or spoken discourse, does not carry meaning in and of itself. Rather, meaning occurs as a result of the interaction between the readers' or listeners' prior knowledge about the world and the text or speech” (Chiang & Dunkel, 1992, p. 350). Prior knowledge about the world and text or speech form what is known as content schemata (individuals' networks of knowledge on different topics readily available to be activated when necessary) and rhetorical schemata (individuals' knowledge of the structure and organization of the discourse). Building background is to be partly understood as activating existing schemata in the mind of learners knowing that the activation of these schemata will facilitate the processing of new information by increasing the learners' ability to engage in hypothesis formation and to make predictions and inferences (Mendelsohn, 1994).

Building background is not only about activating pre-existing knowledge, it’s also about developing knowledge and background to serve as a bridge to new concepts. In Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners (the SIOP model), Echevarria et al. (2004) dedicate an entire chapter to the importance of using the building background strategy in designing effective curriculum units. In their work, they propose a three-step approach to building background to ensure effective language and content instruction:

  • Include a pre-instructional phase (see Strategy #2) which focuses on the acquisition of the necessary tools learners need to tackle the language and content tasks. At its most basic level, it involves exposing students to the vocabulary and language structures necessary to ensure basic comprehension of the content.
  • Expose individuals to experiences they might never have had. This is to ensure that learners have a necessary knowledge foundation to process the sometimes difficult concepts in the lesson.
  • Allow students to build background for themselves by devising different ways for them to develop first-hand experience.

The CoBaLTT website provides many effective graphic organizers to facilitate background building such as the KWPL chart (What do I Know? What do I Want to know? What do I Predict? What have I Learned?)

Ultimately, building background is a key strategy in CBI as it represents the first step toward creating meaningful content and language learning opportunities for students, which is arguably one of the most important goals of CBI.



Mike Smart’s unit--From Godzilla to the Ring: An Overview of Japanese Film: Lesson 1

In the pre-task of the introductory lesson of this unit on US and Japanese film, Mike has his students begin with identifying vocabulary they know related to the movie industry to identify the genres they are already familiar with before they begin comparing American and Japanese films. Mike not only ensures that his students are prepared linguistically to tackle the CBI unit but he also makes sure that his students possess enough content knowledge by having them brainstorm and discuss various movie genres such as horror, romance, comedy, and so forth, and create a list that they can use later on to support their learning progression.


Barbara Anderson’s unit—Le Moyen Âge en France: Lesson 01

In this lesson, Barbara does a very good job preparing her students to tackle the theme of the unit. In the preview phase of the first lesson, she divides her class into small groups and activates her students’ background knowledge about the Middle Ages in France by asking them to brainstorm the answers to specific questions that require them to share what they know with other classmates (e.g., What do you know about the Middle Ages in terms of leaders and governance, challenges, cultural and artistic products, values and beliefs?). She debriefs the activity with a whole class discussion while a couple students are in charge of recording the ideas and new vocabulary on large poster paper so that this knowledge (recycled or newly built) can be accessed and reused at any time during the course of the unit.


Jill Pearson’s unit—Chez moi et dans le monde entier: Exploring our use and relationship with water: Lesson 01

In the beginning of the first lesson, Jill asks her students to think about their own perceptions about water (e.g., what it represents to them, what places they associate it with, etc.) and then share their varied perceptions with the rest of the class. Asking students to reflect on their own perceptions is an effective way to activate students’ schemata and prepare them to build bridges from what they already know to the new concepts they will have to internalize during the course of the CBI unit.


Anderson, R. C. (1977). The notion of schemata and the educational enterprise: General discussion of the conference. In R. C. Anderson, R. J. Spiro, & W. E. Montague (Eds.) Schooling and the acquisition of knowledge (pp. 415-431). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Anderson, R. C., Spiro, R. J., & Montague, W. E. (Eds.) (1977). Schooling and the acquisition of knowledge. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Bartlett, F. C. (1932). Remembering. Cambridge, UK : Cambridge University Press.

Chiang, C. S., & Dunkel, P. (1992). The effect of speech modification, prior knowledge and listening proficiency on EFL lecture learning. TESOL Quarterly, 26 (2), 345-374. As cited in: Mendelsohn, D. J. (1994). Learning to listen: A strategy based approach for the second language learner. San Diego, CA : Dominie Press, Inc.

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2004). Making content comprehensible for English learners: the SIOP model (2nd ed.). Pearson Education, Inc.

Mendelsohn, D. J. (1994). Learning to listen: A strategy based approach for the second language learner. San Diego, CA : Dominie Press, Inc.

Piaget, J. (1954). The construction of reality in the child. NY: Basic Books.

Spiro, R. J. (1977). Remembering information from text: The “state of schema” approach. In R. C. Anderson, R. J. Spiro, & W. E. Montague (Eds.), Schooling and the acquisition of knowledge ( pp. 137-165). Hillsdale, NJ : Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


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